Day of the Doon in San Juan

Randall Grahm hosts Farm to Table Dinner at his San Juan vineyard
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With the first signs of winter sweeping in over the weekend, Bonny Doon Vineyards hosted its “Day of the Doon” dinner and vineyard tour in San Juan Bautista, on Saturday, Oct. 15. Bonny Doon Vineyard owner Randall Grahm was offering the event for its 14th time, but its the fifth event on his property in San Juan Bautista. Well-known in the food and wine world, Bonny Doon Vineyard is recognized for irresistible marketing and several very successful wines.

Boony Doon’s newest vineyard and farming operation is on Mission Vineyard Road and is a neighbor to Morris Grass Fed Beef and Saint Francis Retreat. Tickets for the organic, farm-to-table dinner were purchased through the website at $140 per person with discounts for wine club members.

Grahm, the owner of Bonny Doon Vineyard gave the location the name “Popelouchum.” The Bonny Doon website states that it is, “the Matsun Indian tribe’s word for ‘paradise.” On the website, Grahm described his search for this new farming location, “I found the property in San Juan Bautista, ‘Popelouchum’ after going on a seemingly endless stream of ‘realtor dates.’ I knew it was the right place immediately because I had dreamt about it before actually seeing it.”

Grahm is the central figure in this adventure. His guests ranged from couples in their early 30s to spry seniors, all food and wine lovers. Most were new to the area and unfamiliar with San Benito County. They came to have a fresh, tasty meal, tour the young vines, patches of cropland and hear about Grahm’s latest project. The farm-to-table dinner was prepared out in the elements by Chef Alex Ong, known for his work at the Betelnut, a popular San Francisco restaurant for more 20 years. Ong put on an imaginative meal while guests heard about farming and wine philosophy from Grahm.

To be sure, Grahm adds a little spice to San Benito County’s growing wine community.  According to the Bonny Doon website and Wikipedia, Grahm was born in Los Angeles in 1953, studied at the University of California, Santa Cruz and earned a degree in plant sciences from U.C. Davis.

He started a vineyard along the California coast north of Santa Cruz near the community of Bonny Doon. An innovative wine maker, Grahm popularized the screw cap and advocated for accurate ingredient listing on bottles. The business had great success with Big House, Cardinal Zin and Pacific Rim wines, eventually becoming the country’s 28th largest winery. Grahm sold off the larger brands (Big House and Cardinal Zin) in 2006 and Pacific Rim in 2010. He currently has a wine tasting room in Davenport, also north of Santa Cruz.

When he addressed his guests, Grahm threw out a quick historic reference to the notoriously miserable local mission wine, mixed in a Shakespearean character or two, and described the thought process that propelled him to San Benito County. Whether live or on the web, Grahm’s words tend to come out as a train of thought, much like these rolling paragraphs on his Bonny Doon website:

“Of course, I’ve been thinking about this project for a very long time. When I first purchased the property in San Juan Bautista, it was really with the somewhat generalized notion of producing a wine of place, or vin de terroir, as I understood that term to mean. I had written and spoken and declaimed from sundry soapboxes on the unique virtues of wines of place – how they are in a real sense qualitatively different from standard wines that are more reflections of the winemaker’s intended style – and the dissonance of my own thought and deed had become just too much for me to sustain. I had no choice but to go for it.”

Grahm told the group during the tour, “What I love best about European wine is the sense of place it has, the ‘terrior.'”.

He explained his challenge: “But I just couldn’t figure out how to do it in the new world. How do you match a place that has been growing grapes for 800 years when we are in the ‘New World’? It’s what we have been trying to do,” Grahm said. Then he asked out loud, “Is it possible?”

“What do you want to do to accentuate a sense of place?” he asked, like a college professor already knowing the answer. He suggested among other things, miserly irrigating and smaller vines. He mentioned also using Bio-Char, an activated charcoal that helps the soil retain moisture.  And he has been on the search for varieties known for drought tolerance and insect resistance.

Grahm went on to say that it may not be so much about the ideal as it has to do with finding the right combination. Great wines come from many places around the globe. Grahm said he realized that maybe he was going at it from the wrong perspective. Instead of trying to replicate something, maybe he should start anew, take on the challenge of trying to pull out of San Juan Valley its specific flavor; the air, the soil and the physical character of the place, the “terrior.” After a lengthy discourse of science, history and the art of making a great wine, Grahm wondered to his audience, “But will the kids dance to it?” That got a warm response. With conversations going full-bore and bread mopping up any unclaimed olive oil, this group seemed to be going along with it just fine.






Leslie David

Leslie David is a Bay Area independent reporter/producer and is a BenitoLink founding board member. She has produced for radio, television, newspaper and magazines in both California and Wyoming. She was with KRON-TV News in San Francisco as camera-woman, editor and field producer, where she won the Commonwealth Club's Thomas Storke Award with Linda Yee for their series on the Aids Epidemic. She started as a small market news reporter shooting her own 16mm film at KEYT-TV Santa Barbara. Leslie lives on a ranch with her family in San Benito County.